In 2022, I enrolled in the Memoir Incubator and began writing my first Journal column about my journey, aptly named “Inside the Memoir Incubator.” Then, in 2023, I became the program manager for book inc and joined the Book Revision Lab, and my column changed to “Inside the Book Revision Lab.” Now, in 2024, I’m back in the Memoir Incubator as a Peer Artist Leader (PAL) AND enrolled in Book Submission Lab. So, I’ve changed the title of my column to “The Inside Scoop” with the goal of providing insights and helpful tidbits from all these perspectives: as a program manager, a PAL, and most importantly, a book inc writer.
I’ve been doing this writing thing for almost a decade now, not counting the years when I fantasized about being a writer but never actually put pen to paper. My official start to my writing journey was when I enrolled in my first Memoir class at Project Write Now nine years ago. Along with taking numerous classes and workshops, I’ve attended writing conferences, received feedback from lit mag editors, read a bunch of books on craft, and listened to writing podcasts. As a result, I’ve learned a few things along the way. It would be embarrassing if I hadn’t! I thought I’d share these writing tips with you, along with some links to helpful resources.
1. Don’t use two words when one will do.
This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often two synonyms slip into descriptive writing. For example, recently I wrote, “The lake was peaceful and calm.” These words mean the same thing, Liz. Pick one!
For more information, check out “8 Techniques for Mastering Simple Writing.”
2. Add a descriptive word or phrase.
What? Didn’t you just say to cut words? Yes, I’ve learned not to use two words that mean the same thing, but adding sensory details to my prose makes my scenes richer and more interesting. For example:
Without sensory details: Living life without drinking was painful.
With sensory details: When I drank, the vodka coated my insides like a thick coat of paint, smoothing out the cracks and crevices. Living life without that protection, exposing those cracks and crevices to the world, was painful.
For more information, check out “How to Write Descriptive Sentences.”
3. Don’t try to sound
I learned this one the hard way when a college professor called me out in the class group chat for using a 10-letter word when a simpler one would have worked better. It was obvious I had used a thesaurus to try to sound smarter. And it made me sound stupid. Simpler is better.
Pro tip: Instead of using a thesaurus, it can be helpful to look up the big word in the dictionary, using the definition to explore a simpler way to describe what you’re trying to say.
For more information, check out “Writing Advice From Strunk, White, and Orwell: ‘Avoid Fancy Words’.”
4. Don’t be vague.
Sometimes, I fall into the trap that being vague is better writing, thinking falsely that it builds suspense. But the reader shouldn’t be left wondering, “What is the writer trying to say?” Eventually, they’ll lose interest and stop reading. When trying to make a point, I try to make it crystal clear. Better to overexplain at first and then cut words later if I’ve added too many details.
For more information, check out “This Is Why You Are Not Writing Vividly.”
5. Mix it up – structure and length.
I’ve learned that in order to keep my reader engaged, it’s important to provide variety to sentence length and structure. Too many short sentences and my writing sounds abrupt. Too many long sentences, and the reader might get lost. I try to mix up my prose with both short and long sentences. Similarly, I vary my sentence structure. If I’ve written several sentences as “Subject verb object,” I throw in a complex sentence or two, starting with a prepositional phrase.
For more information, check out “How to Vary Sentence Structure in Your Writing.”
Even though I know the above advice, I sometimes fall back on these ineffective habits. That’s why revision is so important. Keep in mind, at book inc, we encourage each other not to edit ourselves while drafting. Better, as Anne Lamott advises in her wonderful book Bird by Bird, to keep going and complete a “sh*tty first draft.” But after I’ve completed a draft and I’m ready to revise, I apply these tips. I hope you find them helpful as well!
Write on, writers!